Agencies and ambassadors visit refugee camps

Representatives of two UN agencies and nine embassies, including two ambassadors, arrived on Tuesday in the Algerian desert town of Tindouf, where some 165,000 Western Sahara refugees have lived for nearly 30 years, a UNHCR official in Geneva told IRIN.

The four-day mission, jointly organised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme (WFP) aims to assess the food and general situation in the five camps inhabited by the refugees in Tindouf, the official said.

It hopes to follow up on ongoing confidence-building measures, including taking a first-hand look at how free phone lines launched last week for the refugees were working. The mission would also see how other proposed activities such as a mail service and family visits would be implemented, the official explained.

UNHCR hopes to carry out postal services between the refugees and their relatives in Morocco and eventually start visits by relatives on UN Mission in Western Sahara (MINURSO) shuttle flights.

The mission would be briefed by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General to Western Sahara, Alvaro de Soto, the official added. In the past month, De Soto has been holding meetings with Moroccan officials in Rabat to discuss UNHCR's proposals to re-establish person-to-person contacts between Western Saharan refugees living in Tindouf and their relatives in Moroccan-ruled Western Sahara.

UNHCR launched the free phone service for the refugees last week at a school in Tindouf, and 50 calls were made in the first two days.

Humanitarian agencies and human rights organisations pointed out recently that the refugees, whose plight had almost been forgotten, were living in deplorable conditions.

In December, UNHCR and WFP jointly appealed to donors to contribute funds quickly to ensure the regular delivery of food to the refugees. UNHCR said they had survived on aid that increasingly arrived late or was insufficient.

It noted that 10 percent of the refugees were malnourished and that urgent crises elsewhere in the world had overshadowed their food aid needs, making the support by agencies "literally a hand-to-mouth operation".

Apart from officials from UNHCR and WFP, the ambassadors of Austria and Finland were on the mission. Others include representatives from the Belgian, Spanish, United States, French, Italian and South African embassies. Algerian officials, those of the Red Crescent and the Humanitarian Affairs Office for the European Commission (ECHO) were also represented.

Western Sahara was annexed by Morocco in 1976 after Spain withdrew from its former colony. The Algeria-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario Front) has been fighting since then for it to become an independent state.

Armed clashes came to an end with a ceasefire in 1991, but UN-backed negotiations since then to secure a political settlement have made little progress.

The latest UN peace plan for Western Sahara, drawn up last year by former US Secretary of State James Baker, provides for a referendum in four to five years time at which the inhabitants of Western Sahara would choose between independence, autonomy or complete integration into Morocco.

The plan was accepted by the Polisario Front and approved by the UN Security Council, but was rejected by Morocco.